Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border

A Virtual Book Talk with the Author

in partnership with the South Asia Center & the Penn Anthropology Department

Malini Sur
Senior Lecturer in Anthropology, Western Sydney University
Thursday, November 11, 2021 - 12:00
A Virtual CASI Book Talk via Zoom — 12 noon EST | 10:30pm IST

(English captions & Hindi subtitles available)

About the Book:

Jungle Passports recasts established notions of citizenship and mobility along violent borders. Sur shows how the division of sovereignties and distinct regimes of mobility and citizenship push undocumented people to undertake perilous journeys across previously unrecognized borders every day. Paying close attention to the forces that shape the life-worlds of deportees, refugees, farmers, smugglers, migrants, bureaucrats, lawyers, clergy, and border troops, she reveals how reciprocity and kinship and the enforcement of state violence, illegality, and border infrastructures shape the margins of life and death. Combining years of ethnographic and archival fieldwork, her thoughtful and evocative book is a poignant testament to the force of life in our era of closed borders, insularity, and "illegal migration."

About the Author:
Malini Sur is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Western Sydney University. She studies agrarian borderlands, cities, and the environment. Malini is the author of Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility, and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). She has also published on borderlands in Cultural AnthropologyComparative Studies in Society and History, and Modern Asian Studies. She has co-edited two Special Issues in CITY and Economic and Political Weekly on construction and repair economies. 

Malini’s photographs on South Asia's borders have been exhibited in Amsterdam, Berlin, Bonn, Chiang Mai, Gottingen, Heidelberg, Kathmandu, and Munich. Her first documentary film, Life Cycle, about air pollution and urban cycling in India, has been screened in Baltimore, Canberra, Kolkata, Perth, Santiago, Singapore, and Sydney.


Nafis Hasan:

Welcome to CASI's fall seminar series. My name is Nafis Hasan. I'm a post-doctoral research scholar at CASI. And along with my colleagues, moderate this series. The seminar series, which we do both in the fall and the spring comprises talks by a diverse range of scholars from India and the US on a variety of critical and contemporary topics. Our speakers come from a wide range of disciplines, including political science, anthropology, sociology, economics, and public policy. We have these talks typically on Thursdays at noon Eastern time. So please sign up for them on the CASI website. So before I introduce today's speaker, just to put in a plug for next Wednesday, not Thursday this time, that is November 17th. We have a virtual book talk by professors Sanjoy Chakrovotry and Neelanjan Sircar who are the editors of a very exciting volume called Colossus: The Anatomy of Delhi. This volume is special to us as it emerged out of the CASI 25th anniversary workshop on urbanization in November, 2017. Please register for this event on the CASI's website.

So without further ado, I'm delighted to welcome Dr. Malini Sur to the seminar today. Dr. Sur is a senior lecturer in anthropology at Western Sydney university. She studies agrarian borderlands, cities and the environment. She is the author of Jungle Passports: Fences, Mobility and Citizenship at the Northeast India-Bangladesh Border (University of Pennsylvania, Press 2021) which this seminar is centered around. She has also published on borderland in cultural anthropology, comparative studies in society and history and modern Asian studies. Dr. Sur has co-edited two special issues in city and economic and political weekly on construction and repair economies. Dr. Sur's photographs on south Asia's borders have been exhibited in Amsterdam, Berlin, Bonn, Chiang Mai, Gottingen, Heidelberg, Kathmandu and Munich. Her first documentary film, Life Cycle about air pollution and urban cycling in India has been screened in Baltimore, Canberra, Kolkata, Perth, Santiago, Singapore and Sydney. In other words, she's not only a prolific writer, but also a creative artist.

Let me now say a few words about the book. Jungle Passports recast established notions of citizenship and mobility along violent borders. The author shows how the division of sovereignties and distinct regimes of mobility and citizenship push undocumented people to undertake perilous journeys across previously unrecognized borders every day. Paying close attention to the forces that shape the life rules of deportees refugees, farmers, smugglers, migrants, bureaucrats, lawyers, clergy, and border troops, she reveals how reciprocity and kinship and the enforcement of state violence, illegality and border infrastructures shape the margins of life and death. Combining years of ethnographic and archival field work, her thoughtful and evocative book is a poignant testament to the force of life in an era of closed borders, insularity and illegal migration. So before I turn it to or speaker, just to remind you, we are going to have a similar format like last time.

So if you have questions at the end could you please use the chat box to send them directly to me, Nafis Hasan, and I will call on you to pose your question to our presenter [inaudible 00:03:27] [inaudible 00:03:27] . Please keep your question brief and to the point so we can get to as many as possible and apologies in advance if we can't get to everyone. Also, please use the chat box only for questions. Finally, please be mindful about muting your mics throughout the duration of the event. And also please remember that you cannot record this presentation without prior permission from the presenter. Once again, thank you for your interest and for being here today. With that, I'm going to turn to Dr. Sur to take us away.

Malini Sur:

Thank you Nafis for your introduction, and a very heart felt thank you to [Karek and Navine 00:04:01]. I'm very honored to be with all of you this morning. It's early morning in Sydney. Today I'm speaking to you from the lands of the [inaudible 00:04:13] nation where I live and work. I pay my respects to elders past, present and emergent. These lands have never been seeded and they never will. Now what I'll do in the next half an hour or so that I have with you is to present you Jungle Passports in three parts. And I'll begin with part one, which is about road [inaudible 00:04:36]. A broken asphalt and mud road, connected Rowmari Bangladesh with Tura, a town in the state of Meghalaya, Northeast India. For over six decades, Ali's ox cart had traveled the almost 50 mile distance between Bangladesh's marshlands and Northeast India's hills. In British times. And even later, the 80 year old cartman told me, except for the bustling frontier markets that the road lead to, our journeys were silent. From Tura and onwards to Putan and Tibet.

We did not see anyone for miles. Traders flock to Ali's doorstep, carrying fuel and cooking utensils for the long journey. Returning from Tura with precious timber. A mile away from Ali's house, Rowmari's retired, postmaster pointed out the sturdy wooden beam supporting the post office's roof, telling me that the wood to make them had also traveled downhill from Tura. Stories about the Rowmari Tura road unevenly connected Ali's ox cart journeys along the river Brahmaputra with the Garo, and I quote, turtle hunters, unquote. Mahfuz, who's an elderly Imam guided me as we walked along the Rowmari Tura road, starting at the [inaudible 00:05:51] Rowmaric heart, the key. Raising his voice so that I could hear him over the sound of speeding buses, he described how during the British era steamer boats had sailed from this dock yard, which was then in the British province of Bengal to the neighboring province of Assam. Stopping to catch his breath at the side of the road, he silently indicated a pillar hidden in a patch of grass time had reduced the cemented pillar to a stone stub.

It's stood by a shallow lake. Slowly circling a shaky finger Mahfuz drew invisible lines in the air, sketching the sturdy ropes that had once chained the boats to the pillars. The loud honking of buses interrupted the momentary silence that had descended. It jolted us to the present, diverting our attention away from the pillar to the busy road. We continued walking eastward in Tura's direction. Soon we reached the Bangladeshian border. Sand bags shielded a Bangladeshi border outpost from potential fire from the Indian side. Bangladesh's border troops stood at the outpost gate with guns strapped to their chest. Mahfuz and I walked again, stopping at a distance from the angular metal pillars of India's new barrier. Mahfuz pointed in the direction of Tura describing it as the land of the Garos. Earlier I had conducted fieldwork in Tura, a dusty town that India's federal security forces had heavily militarized.

Except for the undocumented Bangladeshi laborers from Rowmari and its adjoining shores who worked in Tura. No one had ever mentioned the road. The Rowmari Tura road's presence in Bangladesh where border villages [inaudible 00:07:36] and its absence in Northeast India queries the relationship between the marshes and the adjoining hills. The British colonial archives had consigned the roads to obscurity. The juncture between the contemporary ubiquity of an old trade route in Rowmari, its relative lack of acknowledgement in Tura and its historical incomprehensibility in the British records, probes for the remnants of roads gathering [inaudible 00:08:06] as an ethnographic force. Who constructed this road and why? Where did the road begin? Where did it end? Who were the inhabitants of Rowmari an Tura. Now in seeking to answer these seemingly very simple questions we have to recon how in 19th century, British India road building was intrinsically tied to the making of tribes and the marking of boarders that came to comprised regions of British Indias, Northeastern [inaudible 00:08:32]. Jungle passages and roads were fundamental to British territory of incursions that came to build upon frontier settlements and identities.

What is romantically recalled as a trade connector in Rowmari was an effective disorderly passage for appropriating land and conscripting labor in Tura and it's surrounding regions. In fact, the Rowmari Tura road functioned as a disruptive segregator both in its territorial forms as well as in its human implications. In other words, roads for border fences involves long before India's new border fence with Bangladesh made a gradual appearance in the landscape. As geographical, instrumental and political designs routes enabled access to unexplored terrains that British East India Company and later the British state came to control at [inaudible 00:09:24]. South Asia's frontier historians have demonstrated how routes were arteries of commerce and warfare. Roads specially possessed strategic importance since they provided access and passage for mutual interventions. Road connections aligned borders and communities, their material formations made the borders of maps real. Here I quote Shade Heines and Mahanaz [inaudible 00:09:46] In regions that came to comprise British Indias, Northeastern frontiers [inaudible 00:09:52] the territory conversations between colonial officials who desired access to territories and indigenous societies who rebelled against aggressive demands for passage. As segregating devices, roads created settled frontiers such as Rowmari and savage frontiers such as Tura.

Representational and developmental processes that rested on punitive expeditions and land emissions and resource extraction in the Hills of Northeastern borderlands of the British empire came to watch the identity of the Garos as primitive in comparison to other ethnic inhabitants of the British provinces of [inaudible 00:10:31]. The savage [inaudible 00:10:34] as a trope to describe all types of resistance in this region. In the rich historical accounts of territorial alliances and resistances, including the [inaudible 00:10:45] and the [inaudible 00:10:46] tribes emerge as prototypes of cultural specificity and social structure. In Jungle Passports, I unsettle the recurring historical motive. I also show how these frontiers continue to anchor political tensions to nervously go together, uneven territories. While pulling people apart in competing political directions. Part two, foreigners tribunals X one and two [inaudible 00:11:15] the bus from Dispur, Assam's capital city entered a border town that I called melty hunch, a loosely suspended time treated visitor. The border sign post expressed gratitude to travelers for visiting India announcing the end of Indian territory. Even before visitors could enter the town's bureaucratic enclave. The enclave was a short distance from the bus depo. Inside the enclaves for foreigners tribunals X one and X two two of the hundred tribunals adjudicating the borders of Indian citizenship and Bangladeshi migrant illegality in Assam.

As I started observing and noting the judicial proceedings in the two storied house that accommodated the two tribunals, the borders between Indian citizens and unauthorized Bangladeshis constantly flared. The [inaudible 00:12:10] 65 or so was completely oblivious that the police had identified her as a suspected Bangladeshi and had summoned her to the tribunal. When her name was announced, Bibi entered the courtroom wiping her face with a green handkerchief, exhausted from fasting for the holy month of Ramadan. She slowly grabbed the arm of the plastic chair by the door with her boney hands. She made an attempt to sit, at once the lawyer stopped her the court typist glared at her from under his glasses. In the absence of the state prosecutor who was late, the judge asked Bibi to present her case. She mumbled, the judge tried to facilitate the process and asked her a few questions. She failed to answer.

Confused, she made eye contact with her witness, a neighbor named Barri who presented himself before the court. It was only during Barri's testimony to the court that the state prosecutor barged into the trial room profusely apologizing to the judge for his delay. Holding his hands theatrically at Bibi, he bowed in an obvious display of respect. He requested that as an elder, she forgive him for the questions that he was obliged to ask. With this apology, he hurled a torrent of questions at Barri, Bibi's witness, to compensate for his late arrival. Giving Barry only a few seconds to think, the prosecutor constantly confused him and demanded that he present his birth and marriage certificates before the court. Dumb founded and Barri looked helplessly at the lawyer and claimed that he was not asked to procure his own documents before coming to the court. Speaking upon the moment of confusion, the state prosecutor announced to the court that Bibi and Barri had worked on a series of carefully crafted lies to acquire Indian citizenship.

Looking at the judge, he announced in a booming voice. Barri is Bangladeshi national and he's falsely supporting the claims of another Bangladeshi national, Nehab Bibi. Bibi lack identity documents, except for a voter identity card that was inadmissible as evidence of Indian citizenship as these were often falsely procured. Furthermore, she did not have a registered married certificate. The legal question was whether Nehab Bibi had enough evidence to prove that she was her father's daughter. Although her father's name Asovali appeared in the 1965 electoral rules, there are no documents to prove that Bibi was his daughter. The prosecutor interpreted her uncertain and jumbled responses, as well as the lack of documentary evidence as sufficient reason to believe that she was an illegal Bangladeshi. Gloating with self importance at having proved the suspect to be an illegal Bangladeshi, the prosecutor pointed at her to loudly announce. You Nehab Bibi have come to India after March 25th, 1971. You have entered here illegally and you're Bangladeshi. Since she could not sign, typist quickly asked Bibi to put her thumb impression on a court document that stated the case had been examined. With a smug smile the prosecutor patted the visibly flustered defense council on his back.

[inaudible 00:15:26] work drove people like Nehab Bibi into the foreigners tribunals. Let me give you just a very quick glimpse into the activities of [inaudible 00:15:35] specially constituted border police who conduct surveys and identifies the threat. Among the many constables was investigator zero one two who [inaudible 00:15:48] named after the esoteric manner in which he classified his police reports. Head based diaries illustrate the varied ways in which detection serves to enrich sufficience along boarders. Over six months zero one two reported arriving in the village Kachari at precisely 9:15 every morning. At 10, he left for his preselected destination. The house of the suspected Bangladeshi, arriving at exactly one in the afternoon. For an hour, he employed various interrogation techniques and gathered intelligence about the suspects from their neighbors. By three in the afternoon, the expedition was complete. He folded his survey sheets and left for the local police station. At [inaudible 00:16:32] zero one two ended his day. For the six months that he investigated suspected foreigners in the village of Kachari, Zero one two reported traveling three times to the same house and beating several suspects belonging to the same family. Instead of firmly locating people in specific places zero one two's meticulously handwritten notes reinforces [inaudible 00:16:54].

The judge took note of Nehab Bibi's statements about her father's compulsions to constantly migrate as a landless laborer to seek work. And her relocation to her husband's house upon an early marriage. He emphasized that Bibi disagreed with the state prosecutor's claims and stated that the police had not conducted adequate inquiries. He recorded that Nehab Bibi had submitted her father and husband's electoral documents in original and certified copies from village authorities. The judgment stated that although the state prosecutor doubted that the Bibi was the daughter of Asub Ali and the wife of Sohan Ali he was unable to provide any evidence to the contrary. Further more, Bibi had provided evidence of her name in an older electoral register. Along with that of her husbands endorsed by the village authorities. The judge therefore delivered the verdict that Nehab Bibi was not a foreigner. She was an Indian citizen. Others however were not so lucky. The systems of disclosure upon which police surveillance relied had the effect of turning families against each other.

Among those who sat anxiously in the back office of the trial chamber was Mon Mohondas. He claimed that in his village, which was a village in Assam that bordered Bangladesh, the police had encouraged people to come forward and disclose the name of unauthorized Bangladeshi's. Mon Mohundas insisted that his brothers were taking advantage of the new laws to dispossess him of his share of their father's property. He emphasized that his younger brother had notified the police that he was an illegal Bangladeshi to ensure that he was so embroiled in appearing before the tribunal, that he would not have the time to fight another court case to make a claim on his father's land. And doubt surrounded the identities of people such as Mon Mohundas who were accused of assimilating into refugee colonies as new migrants from Bangladesh. No one at the tribunals paid any heed to his claims about family conflicts. Intermittently the day died down. When they identified suspects who the tribunal had summoned failed to appear, silence replaced the frenzied rustling of petitions and files as well as the clammer of voices.

Despite the police surveys and court summons, Assam's missing populations were either legally, nor physically identifiable. As subjects who eluded post police mapping and legal verification, their absence added to the ever evolving dynamics of citizenship and suspicion along the India Bangladesh boarder. The clerks who [inaudible 00:19:41] compress these files under the category of untraceable or [inaudible 00:19:46]. Despite the inability to report those deemed to be illegal Bangladeshis, the reports that police constable continually keep [inaudible 00:19:56] stable testified to how electoral politics in Assam was driven by illegal Bangladeshi issues, quote, unquote, and spread the states tentacle in everyday lives. Secret sources continue to leap out from the pages of police interrogation reports, their anonymity making them as powerful as the uniform police constables they've deported. And yet the cases of missing suspects as a mass of floating unidentified and undeportable populations added to the dominant political imagination that illegal Bangladeshis in Assam were elusive criminals subject. Sometimes suspects who lacked identity papers, such as Bibi transformed into Indian citizens. At other times, even when petitioners produce identity papers and certifications to prove their Indian citizenship claims they were kept in limbo.

So what are the rights of citizens and suspects who have been made stateless Assam? How do marital and property rights, including the value addition of labor fit into citizenship rights? Now in Jungle Passports I show how people with documentary evidence of Indian citizenship have been rendered stateless on the grounds that their paper identities are fraudulent. Sometimes just on the basis that it is so easy to procure fake documents. Others who assert their Indian citizens do not have the necessary papers to prove their claims to land as property, their marital relationships, and by extension their claims to the membership of the Indian nation itself. Instead of resolving issues on unauthorized migration and land loss, the ethereal presence of Bangladeshi suspects in law and life accentuates Assam's dual predicament as [inaudible 00:21:46] repositioned internal and external frontier of Indian democracy.

Even judgments at the tribunal did not necessarily obliterate confusion and social suspicion. The imposition of judicial borders through polices service, court trials and detentions, and now digital surveillance of night cameras and drones generate a panoptic of fear. Suspicions shape the politics of membership and belonging rather than precisely determining the legal thresholds of either Indian citizenship or Bangladeshi migrant illegality. Laws encourage vigilance, suspicion we've then allowed to intimate spaces and turn family, friends, and neighbor against each other. The policing and judicial systems of modern states pre-support suspicion in ways that overhaul uncertainties and ambiguities. The system becomes a device to decide for the boundaries of citizenship, by hunting people, extorting money, manipulating papers, and settling scores. In Assam the label Bangladeshi [inaudible 00:22:45] ridiculous and dispossesses people in the name of Indian citizenship.

Part three, the final part. So two things have happened here as you would probably guessed. One is that I went to Bangladesh to understand how border villages in Bangladesh that had joined a Assam and Meghalaya Northeast India were being displaced or were responding to the fence and a series of transnational [inaudible 00:23:29] that I followed. And there, instead of talking about the fence, villagers led me to a road, which I couldn't find in the archives and I kept looking for it. And now there are two reasons. There's one very obvious reason that I couldn't locate it in the archive it's because I'm not trained as a historian. And probably I was not looking in the right file or the right box. But most importantly, it led me to a very different understanding of the region and its history. And it also forced me to rethink this infrastructure.

This multilayered fence that I was following from 2007 to 2015, that India was constructing along its borders with Bangladesh. It enabled me to re-situate this structure in a 200 year history of land conflicts, land loss and struggle over identity. And the second thing, as you know, I spoke to you about participant observation and two foreigners tribunals in Assam, where I had permission to sit and to consult the archives and to witness the proceedings. And of course, I went there to study Indian citizenship, but as it happened, I returned with notes on suspicion. Let me come to the final part of my talk. So from 2007 till 2015, I closely followed the constructions of India's new fence that cut through Northeast India Bangladesh border, and studied its implications for border societies. The emergent infrastructures, routine floods which brought animals, reminded the villages that they could not take for granted the land, the border, their relationships with one another and the border troops, or even the actions of animals for granted.

On days when crossing the border is impossible, traders, transporters and their families went hungry. Despite these difficulties, the division of sovereignties and distinct regimes of mobility pushed people to undertake perilous journeys in order to make a living. In remote border villages, children shouted, lion clear [inaudible 00:25:44] clear as they ran around flying kites, reminding me again and again, that borders are not just sites for cutting the imprint of state violence. The [ Rasjunis, Humulijathras and Bengoli 00:25:52] all travel by jungle passports, maintain trans border livelihoods, kinship and religious life amid nationalism, disasters, fear and despair. At borders people forge meaningful relationships beyond lines of nation, religion, and ethnicity. So what of it that propels life to continue to revolve around a heavily fortified fence amid violence, [inaudible 00:26:21] fear and uncertainty, how have longstanding socio-ecological histories and territorial conflict, severed emergent political topographies of mobility and citizenship.

How can attention to the forces that shape the large world of deportees, refugees, farmers, smugglers, migrants, bureaucrats, lawyer, clergy, and border troops in this region. tell us about reciprocity in exchange and the enforcement of state violence illegality and border infrastructures in general. And what makes these rural lives and their relationships [inaudible 00:26:58] longing nostalgia and difference convey about the unfinished business of nation building, identity and insularity all about the hardening of borders that is globally evident in the 21st century. So in Jungle Passports. I have tried to answer these questions and I show how borders continue to gather life's promises, even when walls and checkpoints literally divide nations and societies. Despite the attendant risk, borders propel life forwards with mobility, identity, and citizenship that are [inaudible 00:27:32] in the making. The powerful forces that regulate the fragile balance of life and death at the nation's margin, compel people to cross borders again and again. Today, more than ever before, attention to these shifts may help scholars think about the life forces that connect divided landscape.

Over the last decade. The world has been experiencing a resurge in politics of nationalist authoritarianism that locates borders at the front lines of debates on globalization, unauthorized migration and citizenship. While interlocked webs of relationships shape border societies, borders are also sites where a sense of being uprooted and rendered less than human continually like this. By virtue of their location, the loyalty of border residents to the nation continues to be in doubt, and ethnic and religious minorities who reside here are rendered even more marginal to the projects of the nations state. The very dyanamism the tugs and pulls that hold people together across national territories and beyond the lines of blood simultaneously results in an enduring sense of danger and loss. So in Jungle Passport I situate four elements, ecologies, infrastructures, exchanges, and mobility of this defacto system showing how they work in tandem through permeable boundaries to shape the course of life and loss at the Northeast India Bangladesh border.

Even in the sheer course of state violence, deadly ecologies and incursive infrastructures, borders remain permeable. Such porosity I argue with partly generators of failed projects of nationalism and border militarization. Instead it attests to how border societies constantly recalibrate the nation's power of territorial regulation in their lives. Eric Beverly argues that frontiers not only signify edges that function as spatial limitations, but also function as sites of creativity, power and resources. Fragmented sovereignties along frontiers enable people to move between territories and partake in different regimes of authority. Frontiers as productive sites for marginal people, because social and legal governance have limited impacts here. Borders work in a similar way, making the brutal performances of sovereign authority most visible while showing how the territorial regulation of sovereign power is far from complete at the nations edges.

Now commonly discussions on life in unstable locations and times, especially critical today. The present offers a decisive political moment in which efforts to fortress territorial boundaries and ultra nationalism are pushing people with uncertain [inaudible 00:30:23] and violent encounters with increasingly hostile nation state. The hardening of borders in the 21st century shows how force and life become enmeshed, where their productive tensions can be read as well as erasure and where they mutate the [inaudible 00:30:40] and the precarious [inaudible 00:30:41]. Now the dual logic of force as momentum and ecstatic unfolds through the border's life giving and life taking properties. At borders, the more insidious workings of violent nationalism and arbitrary [inaudible 00:30:57] reveal life's relationships with a range of forces. Forces that destroy life and forces that enact the productive potential of life. Models generate decisive moments that establish the margins of precarity and prosperity and forge the boundaries of life and death.

Now I've given you the two ends of Jungle Passport. Let me tell you a little bit of what is in the middle of the book. So the book, as I was telling you begins it's Ark in Rowmari in Bangladesh, excuse me. Book begins it's Ark in Rowmari Bangladesh. The people's recollections surrounding an old trade route that you've heard about the Rowmari Tura road. And it's historical discussions. Now today Rowmari and Tura is situated in two nation states. Bangladesh and India. And yet they belong to a boarder land. So the road is a metaphor for disruption, mobility, connection, identity and longing. Themes that I engage with in Jungle passports. And it also provided the foundations to transcend the most obvious religious dichotomy in this region. The dichotomy of the Hindus and Muslims, the two majority religions of India and Bangladesh effectively, as well as conventionally understandings of ethnicity and gender. Now, I started searching for this road in old maps. Instead I found its traces in the Helio tropes of British colonial surveyors, as they battle forest fires in a devastating earthquake and in the making of the Garos as a tribe. I continued joining on the road through time, locating its changing forms through rice harvest traded and lost.

Unknowingly, I traveled on the road with cattle traders and transporters. I left the road temporarily to follow Garo women's Jungle Passport journeys. And the judicial trials of suspected Bangladeshis. While carefully attending to questions of identity [inaudible 00:33:13] and mobility that informed their lives. Now the road makes a turn in the book through India's new border fence, field and recollections of a war. I had a final look at the road through the lens of an Indian [inaudible 00:33:26] binocular. As I held the binocular to my eyes, Bangladesh seemed [inaudible 00:33:31]. This even as Indian border villages arrived at the border outpost seeking permission to see the new Maria, a majestic structure standing between rice field and forest. Everyone pointed towards Bangladesh as a new foreign land. Now in Jungle Passports, I have attempted to show how the vitality and the political salience of borders transfixes from people in pure and nostalgia while simultaneously pushing ideas to move. Most importantly, I advocate for carefully attending to the forces that shape border lives and how we're in turn shaped by borders. Thank you. I'll stop here.

Nafis Hasan:

Right. Thank you so much Dr. Sur. That was a really evocative and very deep description of all the long years of field work that you've done. And also, the historical connections that you've made. It's a really fascinating book. I don't see any questions in the chat box at the moment, but I'm sure people are still processing what you've said, and I'm sure there will be a few questions coming up. I just wanted to start off by just making a few comments about what my thoughts were as I was listening to you. And also as I got a chance to read your introduction to the book, I'm looking forward to read the entire book soon. So I really love the angle that you take on thinking about what has been called in other places, the anthropology of life, which is to say that spaces of precarity are not necessarily only visible to us through the kinds of violence that is perpetrated there, but also questions about how do people survive in spite of all of that, right?

What strategies do they develop and how do these strategies change in response to the domination of power? So I find that a really fascinating and a sort of rare perspective in places of this kind. I think what I was trying to understand better was the framing of sovereignty. And I know from the introduction that you've complicated it already, by saying that in following Wendy Brown's idea of the way in which sovereignty has been weakening, but I just wanted to understand better where do you place that sovereignty? Because I'm wondering if the nations state on one hand and the lives of the multiple multi-pronged lives of border societies on the other is the framing that you're looking at, or should we think of sovereignty more in terms of governmentality, which is that there are these dispersed forces.

I've grown up in the Northeast, and I've been following some of what's happening. Things like student associations, for instance, in Meghalaya the CASI students association, which takes up the question of borders very seriously. So the kind of dispersion of power and domination that this space in some ways generates, would be interesting to think about. I can see some, that's one of my first things I have more thoughts, but I think I can see some questions coming in. So it's really up to you. Or would you like to respond to that? Or should I ask [inaudible 00:37:19] to ask his question?

Malini Sur:

No, can I respond to it quickly? And maybe I can come back to it again while-

Nafis Hasan:


Malini Sur:

The question. So you're absolutely right in flagging the question of sovereignty and if you look across disciplines it's always very [agumben 00:37:41] inspired kind of entry point to understand borders. 15 years earlier, it was Foco. And here, I'm also thinking about Shakran Krishna's marvelous article titled cartographic anxiety in which he actually lays out the frontiers of sovereignty as experienced by [inaudible 00:38:05] analytic. And so for me I wanted to enter this landscape with renewed attention to questions of vitality, to questions of life. And I wanted to do it without losing sight of the extreme violence and the uncertainty that people continue to live with against a fence. So I want to briefly make two interventions.

I kind of make an entry through Niche rather than through scholars of sovereignty, not a very popular philosopher for anthropologists. [inaudible 00:38:48] I know, but what attracted me to, to his work was, again his kind of attention that transcended beyond the atomism that was prevalent in physics at that point of time and the ways in which he understood material forces or material reality as centers of force and as a constellation of force. And that provided me the delusion reading of Niche then provided me to enter into a broader anthropological discussion on forms of life, force of life. And I do this via [Jhavel 00:39:32], and [inaudible 00:39:32] and I do it in a way that provokes attention on vitality without losing sight on death. And mind you here death is not just about a very unique directional sovereign force.

It's much more than that. It's far more than that. And as I started thinking along these lines, because I did not just study one infrastructure or one barrier, but what I do in Jungle Passport, I relocate India's fence in a 200 year history which enabled me to see roads as fences. Rice harvests rice raids [inaudible 00:40:24]. Cattle transactions, the movement of [inaudible 00:40:27] and animals is [inaudible 00:40:29]. Garments, export rejected garments as fences, but each of these barriers were also productive sites of exchange and reciprocity. And so that kind of completely complicates sovereignty as an analytic entry point for me.

Nafis Hasan:

Fascinating. Thank you so much for that response. It's really fascinating. So I'm going to ask Sandeepan, if you can mute and ask the question.


Hello? Am I audible?

Malini Sur:


Nafis Hasan:



So my question was, and this is something I'm also kind of grappling with my own work on internal borders within India, like basically already [inaudible 00:41:15], and going through your work, I was thinking if your work critiques heterotopia, or if you see borders as heterotopia. You touched upon it while you're answering the previous question. So yeah.

Malini Sur:

The expert on your question is actually my friend and colleague Jason Cons, who's written a brilliant book on the India Bangladesh border. I do in certain senses and I do so more in dialogue with Jason's work on climate security and the ways in which climate has changed along the India Bangladesh border. And he has a fantastic article in cultural anthropology. But I really haven't done much with heterotopia in my own work. I've admired what Jason has done. But yes Sandeepan, we've through almost two years of the pandemic and I don't know what kind of work you're doing in India's internal borders, but I think it's become even more significant with the pandemic.


All right. Thank you.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you. So next is Indivar. Indivar, would you like to ask a question?


Yeah. Thank you so much, Nafis. Thank you, professor Sur, for the talk and the amazing book. So my question is could you describe what repercussions or echos these stories of Jungle Passports might have on nation building or nation consolidating projects and core zone such as Delhi or Dakar. Do you see echoes of this there and how these stories are taken up in a place like that. Thank you.

Malini Sur:

Thanks Indivar. The short answer is they're not. But the more complex answer is that, look we have a border that is governed with a very complex mixture of different forms of surveillance and along India's borders with Bangladesh, the forms of surveillance that are directed against Muslims and the forms of surveillance and control that are directed against non Muslims are very distant. Now in parts of the Garo borderland, which are predominantly Christian and quote unquote tribal on the Indian side and ethnic minorities on Bangladesh side, there is far more scope for questions of relationality than difference. Including deep relationships that Garo Bangladeshi border traders, women border traders have with Indian troops. Now, if you look at the series of markets that interperse the Garo borderline. They date to far back to the [inaudible 00:44:30] period and in a sense contemporary borders have come later to bifurcate these markets.

I think what is very interesting is that Meghalaya has demanded more connections with Bangladesh compared to Assam. The discourses of trans-border ethnicities, kinship, and trade have been very different in these two states also because of their demographic compositions. The other thing is that experimental markets have been set up in Meghalaya along the borders of Meghalaya and Bangladesh. And I think they are border hearts. They're a very positive step in bringing border communities closer to national governance and rule. But again, as I show in jungle passport forms of trans-border mobility, alliances, and including the kind relationships that women especially have with border troops occur in completely unanticipated ways. And in Jungle Passports, I also show how people don't go back and forth across borders. Just to make claims to, imagination is that people are migrating or crossing border to make claims to land as political territory. But that is not so. People also cross borders for a wide variety of reason, including making moral claims trans-border resources on account of kinship and other kinds of ethnic and religious styles.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you so much. So can I ask Ayesha Vemuri to ask her question?

Ayesha Vemuri:

Hi. Thank you so much for your talk. That was fabulous. And thank you for your book as well. I guess, my question is about how forms of governmentality developed in places like Assam or on the borders and frontier regions. How they kind of act as laboratories, I'd say, for governance and then are extended into other parts. Obviously I'm thinking about the CA and NRC as things that came up first in Assam and then are extended into other parts of India. So I was wondering if you've thought about that at all. And if you have any thoughts about how this is operating right now.

Malini Sur:

So Ayesha thanks so much for your question. When I started fieldwork in Assam in 2007, it was a very different political landscape, right? I entered a landscape of political dissidents. I encountered a very heavily militarized state. It was almost as if as soon as I reached Guwahati airport, I had reached the border between India and Bangladesh. Because of Assam's long history of very complicated sets of relationships that it had had with new Delhi. And unauthorized Bangladeshi migration has been absolutely central to that relationship. And you're absolutely right in reminding us that the national register for citizens, the CEA have been, I mean the NRC is a classic paper. What was introduced in Assam at a very significant point of time. But as all of us know questions of democracy, there've been electoral shifts in a Assam, you have the BJP in power in Assam which aligns very closely.

You've had new regulations on [inaudible 00:48:25] in Assam and we've been in. So when we talk about the present, we are talking about a very different political moment. Now let me very quickly return to the NRC. When the NRC was initially implemented in Assam people, including Assam's public intellectuals, thought that it would resolve questions of land conflict, land alienation, and this crisis of identity and language that has been at the heart of so many things that have gone wrong in Assam. People really looked at this as a governmental device that would resolve questions. But I don't think in the postcolonial history of Assam, I don't think New Delhi has ever given a Assam's priorities in a way consideration to improve either questions of governance or governmentality. So the present actually unfolds in a very interesting way to see a far closer alignment between Assam and Delhi. It's a completely different regime of governance that we are seeing now.

Nafis Hasan:

Thank you so much. Tariq would you like to ask your question?


Malini thanks so much for that fantastic rich and beautifully delivered talk. And I'm still processing a lot of it and not in anthropology so apologies. So my question is not as theoretically informed, but I think one of the things that I was interested in what you would talking about is you're wrestling with interesting sets of binaries. You have the binary of suspicion, but also meaningful relationships. You have a hardening of the border, but also permeability. And I know that's very much at the hear of what you're doing analytically, but I was particularly interested in how these things play out among the sets of actors who are responsible for an increasingly militarized border. So the lawyers, bureaucrats, I mean the border troops, you're talking about all of these people are heavily enmeshed in the production of the border and the maintenance of it and the surveillance of it.

But I was interested in what the tensions, maybe the unanticipated, you talk about some of the unanticipated relationships that happened between villagers and migrants with these state actors. But I was in interested internally between them were their sites of unanticipated tensions. Sometimes their own directives or incentives may not always align even thinking about the judges actions versus the state prosecutors, but looking at the kind of ways in which border troops may be very differently positioned than lawyers and then bureaucrats how that is playing out at a time of increased surveillance and hardening, but how these local actors also increase centralization in India politically. So how all those dynamics are maybe playing out in these kind of relationships that you're sketching out so beautifully on the ground.

Malini Sur:

Thanks Tariq for your question. This is such an important question. You direct our attention to the various forms that the state takes along borders starting from the border troops who are federally recruited to the local police, local politicians, bureaucrats who are from the nerve centers of the state capitals posted into these remote rural margins and all the power dynamics that unfold, because these are also sites where there's a range of traffic in commodities. And not just people, but also things like rice, things like cattle, things like export rejected garments. And what I try to show in my work that it's not just the geographical specificities through which, governance echoes indistinct part of the border land. And I was just responding to Indivar's question and telling him how the dynamics differ so much in Assam as compared to Meghalaya. But what I actually do in my work is to follow the life of these commodities.

Now let me give you just a couple of examples. If you look at rice, rice becomes a very controversial commodity in a Assam starting from late 1930s when Muslim peasants of Bengali origin start arriving in Assam and there's Indian national Congress and Muslim league. And it's almost in 1947, that Rowmari is actually identified by British intelligence agents as the Pakistan killer. And people are actually fearing that a Assam will be conquered and you have [inaudible 00:53:41] who's jailed and then comes out. He's a pilar he's communalist, and people actually believe that Assam will be attacked and taken over from India and incorporated into Pakistan. So you have this fantastic case in 1947, as soon as India becomes independent rice becomes securitized in Assam. So it was not the cow at that moment that became a security issue. It's the rice.

In another instance, I followed the long trails of cattlers. They moved from north and western in India, and arrive at the Chore borderlands, which are rivering islands where despite the fence, which is a static structure, you have an interposed rivering ecology that still allows the passage of goods. And it is here that the dynamics between armed traders, local police, local bureaucrats, constantly play out at the border. In terms of, from each focal point that the community is moving, the power dynamics. And again, as [inaudible 00:54:50] Chandu reminds us in his magnificent book, the Bengal border land, it's not just the dissident groups that are armed. There are cattlers along the borderlands who trade in a range of contraband who are extremely heavily armed. And there's a constant struggle. Having said all of that. I also want to bring questions of relationality.

Now remember 1947, think about the location in this very sparsely populated Hintaland and Meghalaya that borders Bangladesh. Where you don't see anyone for miles. And think about the military outpost with just about enough fractions, but no chairs, no TVs. All these equipments to staff military outposts have happened in the last 15 years or so. The military outposts were absolutely situated within a dense civilian landscape where villages themselves identified with these outposts and supported these outposts, including the border troops to make favorable impressions with the senior officers. Lending crockery, lending chairs. And these were not fleeting transactional instances, these were deeper relationships. And along the Garo border land, Indian troops have also married Garo women and left the region.

And there's a lot of anxiety and speculation, and you have a similar sense of [inaudible 00:56:27] that you have exchanged along the Pakistan border. And there were also moral panics and anxieties, that Garo women who inherit land will have to give it up to non Garos in that sense. So that's the short answer, but I-



Malini Sur:

I try to tease out these complexities in further chapters of the book.


Fascinating.Thank you.

Nafis Hasan:

Yeah, it's really interesting. And there would be a lot of follow up questions on that, but given that we only have a couple of minutes more, I just wanted to ask you quickly about, so there's the anthropology of border and border lands, right. And a lot of that is focused on the US Mexican border, and there are obviously critiques of the way in which that work has been done. I was thinking, given how special and rare the work that you have done in this book is how would it speak to some of the concerns brought up within that domain. In other words, what could a study of borders in the global south help us think about borders in general theoretically? Yeah. If you could just make some points towards that.

Malini Sur:

Yeah. Thanks Nafis so much for flagging the US Mexico border. [inaudible 00:57:46] among others have written extensively about similar kinds of dynamics along the corridors of US Mexico. But again, you have to remember that NAFTA and the entire dynamics of free trade associations, the kind of factories that have been set up along Mexico has been, it lends itself to a different logic-

Nafis Hasan:


Malini Sur:

Of economic governance and rule. Having said that there are also a lot of unanticipated similarities because I talk about the circulation of Bangladeshi export rejected garments that are produced in Haka and around Hakas factories. And then that circulate to Bangladesh's borders and through the journeys of Bangladeshi Christian Garo women traders, the export surpluses in make an entry into Northeast India through kinship networks. So there are other ways of thinking about resonances of capital closed.

And I get this question often that why wasn't capital your entry point to understand Northeast India. And I'd say that look capital was my entry point to understand Bangladesh. So let's just reverse our dominant ways of thinking. And I also want to briefly come back and acknowledge scholars like [inaudible 00:59:15] Chandur, Jason Cons, [inaudible 00:59:20] who've been co travelers and more recently [inaudible 00:59:24] Paprovski who's book is coming out. And I've really gained a lot from their insights and the work of other scholars who work on Asian borderlands.

Nafis Hasan:

Right. Fascinating. As someone growing up in Meghalaya, I've been a beneficiary of the export surplus that comes into the region. So I know exactly what you're saying. It's fascinating. So we've come to the top of the hour. So it's time to wrap up and thank you once again, immensely for your time. It's a really odd time for you. Thank you for doing this. And we look forward to being in touch with you. For our audience. Do remember that next week, the talk is not on a Thursday, it's on a Wednesday. And you can find more information about it on the CASI website. Look forward to seeing you all again. Bye.